In 1926, after making the leap from the vaudeville circuit to the Broadway stage, Mae West did a little time in jail. Her play Sex, about the life of a prostitute, was declared pornographic and her performance in it an obscenity. "Corrupting the morals of youth" was the official charge, and the incorrigible West wore it like it was a rave review in The New York Times.
And why wouldn't she? Corrupting morals was what she was good at. She used sexual innuendo with all the subtlety and all the force of a wrecking ball, and her blue-leaning shows threatened to give vaudeville a bad name: to make it synonymous with burlesque. Like Elvis would do 30 years later, West co-opted the expressive singing and dancing styles of black performers she admired, and that too shocked polite (or, at least, white) audiences. Her lascivious gaze was, in its day, every bit as scandalous as Presley's swinging hips, and when she said "When I'm good I'm very good and when I'm bad I'm better," she meant every word of it.
The same can in no way be said for Claudia Shear's romantic comedy Dirty Blonde, running at Playhouse on the Square through March 2nd. When this not-so-tawdry tale of a couple brought together through a shared adoration of West, torn apart by a red dress, but ultimately reunited by some pretty bad writing is good, it's only tolerable. When it's bad, it's barely tolerable.
Dirty Blonde isn't a terribly ambitious script. You go into the show expecting to hear West say "Why don't you come up and see me?" and eventually she says it. But even rendered in two dimensions the original material girl is far too large for this tiny concept. The sweet little story about a film librarian who finally meets a nice girl who loves Mae West as much as he does completely disappears in West's sequined shadow. The flashpoints-only West biography doesn't give the little love story room to breathe, and the little love story prevents the biography from reaching beyond the obvious.
In Memphis, it would be difficult to find an actress more suited to the role of Mae West than Jenny Odle. The full-figured comedienne has a knack for going over the top without lapsing into caricature. But Odle never seems to really get inside of West and look around. Her tough-talking vocal impression is, for the most part, solid, but the performance never moves too far beyond simple impression -- an impression that is more grotesque than it is sexy. Don't even get me started about the wigs.
In an early scene where West is dancing on the vaudeville stage, the strap of her dress breaks, allowing one breast to flop out and say "howdy-do" to the crowd. It only lasts a second as Odle looks down and without making a big deal scoops the prodigious boob back into place. Only the faintest hint of devilishness flashes in her wide and otherwise innocent eyes. It's a literally revealing moment where we learn much about the character -- and even more about the actor. We learn that even in extremely broad comedic situations Odle is capable of great subtlety and depth. It's the only moment where Odle as West is allowed to display those qualities. In her secondary role as Jo, the quirky Mae West fan, she is allowed to show them in abundance.
Jonathon Lamer goes above and beyond in his various supporting roles, but to describe those roles as auxiliary is to give them too much credit. Kyle Barnette, an infinitely skilled performer, seems to be phoning it in. His "Gosh, I'm so bashful and boyish" take on Charlie the obsessed librarian all but ignores the fact that he's a man whose life has not turned out the way he planned.
Like they say in the real-estate biz, "location, location, location." It means everything. Under the usually skillful direction of Michael Duggan, the man who gave us such fantastic productions as Zombie Prom and Ruthless, Dirty Blonde is rendered too small for Playhouse on the Square. The same production would have played much better in the more intimate Circuit Playhouse or even TheatreWorks. Furthermore, the small audience scattered to the four corners of the Playhouse auditorium would have felt like a full house at TW or Circuit, and that can have a huge impact on performances. Unfortunately, performance rights for Dirty Blonde were only available to theaters with a larger seating capacity. That's too bad for Playhouse, which will see a lot of empty seats through the run of this show, and it's a disservice to a play that absolutely belongs in a smaller space.
Through March 2nd